Welcome to Panfish!

Part Two hundred-three

A Bass Primer

Smallmouth Bass
By Ron Griffith (RG)

There have been a lot of questions lately, both on the Bulletin Board and in the Chat Room, about the best flies for bass fishing. Hopefully, we can go over a list of the most useful, from top to bottom. Since no listing of flies is complete without some background on how and where to use them, we should probably try to cover some of the different applications of the various flies.

Since the list was promised from top to bottom, let's start with the almost universal popper. One of my favorites is the Peck's Popping Minnow. Like most poppers, it is available in a range of sizes and colors, and should be matched to the local conditions and forage species available. In my area of the south, leopard frogs are a favorite of the largemouth bass, and I prefer the frog pattern poppers. You may prefer a different pattern in your area.

Deer hair bass bugs and frogs are my personal favorites. The Dahlberg Diver is my all-time favorite bass fly, and I sometimes fish it when other flies may do better. There are several deer hair patterns of similar design and construction available, such as Whitlock's Swimming Frog. Other deer hair frogs that you may be familiar with are the Messinger Frog and the Popovic's Frog. All are excellent producers in the right time and place.

When it comes time to move below the surface, things become a bit more complicated. There are many patterns that are excellent bass flies. Some that are specifically targeted toward black bass are the Calcaseiu Pigboat, the Eelworm Streamer, and any of the various deer hair or wool-based shad patterns. The shad patterns in particular may be tied in various colors to match local baitfish or forage. My favorite is a sunfish pattern originated by Jimmy Nix. Using wool, it's not a difficult fly to tie, and produces very well in my local waters.

Some of the best-producing flies imitate plastic bass baits, believe it or not. One of my favorites is a fly that imitates the plastic minnow called the Sluggo. I have not seen many mentions of this pattern in print or on the internet, so I'll give the recipe and tying steps now:


    Hook:   4-6 XL streamer hook w/turned-down eye. The eye is important to this fly, as it is what gives the fly the ability to swing from side to side when twitched on the retrieve.

    Tail:  Krystal flash or other flashy material, shank length.

    Body:  Craft foam strip, inch wide, length to suit, wrapped around hook shank to build a tapered, minnow-shaped body.

    The fly may be colored with marking pens to suit local conditions, and fabric paint may be used to add eyes or markings.

Another favorite of mine is a super-sized San Juan Worm. The Lion Yarn Company makes king-sized chenille approximately 3/8 inch in diameter. I tie this chenille on a size 4-6 sproat hook just as I would tie a normal San Juan Worm, making the finished fly some 4-6 inches in length. Fished as one would fish a regular plastic worm, this fly is deadly.

The previously mentioned Calcaseiu Pigboat is actually a flytier's rendition of a standard tournament bassfisher's Pig & Jig. It is simply a flyfisherman's bass jig. Tied on a heavily weighted hook, it utilizes rubber legs for movement and attraction. Use a weedguard and fish it around heavy cover.

Most of the previous flies are targeted for use in still or slow-flowing water. Bass in streams have different habits and are better suited for some different flies. In the slower stretches, any of the previously mentioned flies will work well, but when the stream speeds up, the selection needs to change. Clouser Minnows would be my top choice, with any of the many crawfish imitations taking second place. A good hellgrammite imitation is usually in my flybox when I hit the streams, just in case nothing else is working. All these flies are good general purpose flies, and are not limited to bass fishing. They catch any fish that will take a fly.

No discussion of bass flies would be complete without a few words on how and where to use the various flies. Bass are ambush feeders. I've never caught a large bass that was very far from some sort of cover. Smaller specimens sometimes patrol the shorelines, trying to stampede schools of minnows, but the larger ones invariably wait in ambush.

Given their propensity to lie in wait, most of my bass flies have some sort of weedguard. Woody cover is a favorite, with weeds and rocks coming in high on the list. Smallmouths particularly favor rocks, with largemouths usually favoring wood and weeds. This is not a hard and fast rule, you will probably catch all types of bass in all types of cover. At any rate, flies must be fished hard against cover to insure the highest success rate, and the fisherman must be prepared to lose the occasional fly.

Due to their love of ambush and their habit of lying in tight cover, the bass is not a long-running fish. It is powerful, however, and will bore deeply into cover. In most places I fish, if a bass can gain ten feet of line, the fisherman will never land it. This calls for strong rods and heavy tippets. I often use straight lengths of 14-30 pound test monofilament, rather than a tapered, X-sized leader. Bass fishing in heavy cover is a form of hand-to-hand combat, with the stronger opponent coming out the winner.

This heavy cover is made to order for the deer hair frogs, the Pigboat, and the king-sized San Juan. All will perform excellently in these areas. More open water is better suited for the Sluggo imitation and the various shad and sunfish imitations.

With the topwater offerings, less is usually more. When the fly hits the water, let it sit perfectly still for as long as you can stand it. Usually, the longer the pause, the bigger the bass. When the retrieve is started, use a minimal approach to begin with, and vary the retrieve until you discover a working combination. With the streamer-type flies, the retrieve should be similar to the normal swimming pattern of the imitated prey. The Sluggo imitation is an exception to this and should be retrieved with short twitches to make the fly swing from side to side.

Last but not least, if you're a beginning basser, persistence is the best quality you can have. Large bass only feed about every 3rd day, and are exceedingly cautious. They also like large meals, so large flies will increase your chances of landing a large specimen. I hear about large bass being taken on small dry flies, and I'm sure it's true. I do feel that these are isolated incidents, though, and the larger fish are much more likely to be taken on large flies. Many of the bass bugs and streamers I fish are 4-8 inches long and require 8-10 wt. rods for comfortable casting. I once caught a 4 pound largemouth with not one, but two hand-sized crappies halfway down its throat. This fish still took a 4-inch Sluggo imitation. When they feed, they feed heavily. Don't be afraid of tossing a fly that's too large.

This was not meant to be a graduate course in bassing. I just hope that I've offered some tips that might help some newbies to the sport get started. If anyone has questions that I might answer, my e-mail is rgriff@pokynet.com. ~ RG in the chat room

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